My Favorite Literary Encounters: Milan Kundera
In Paris in the early 90s I had lunch at La Coupole with Milan Kundera and his wife Véra Hrabánková. We spoke in French, and when my French proved inadequate, Véra translated my English for Milan. He apologized for his poor English. :”Once,” he said, “Véra was invited to a conference in Oxford, and while I was accompanying her I decided to take an English language course to improve my command of the language. By the end of the course, my English was no better, but the instructor’s English was much worse. He made me promise never to come back for more lessons.”
In his country of origin, which was still called Czechoslovakia then, Communism had fallen and Vaclav Havel had been elected president. Kundera spoke about this at length over lunch, with evident joy. But I knew that there had been some friction, some bad blood, between him and Czech dissident writers who had not gone into exile, as he had. His relations with both Havel and Ivan Klima had been strained.
After we ate our fish, he suddenly clapped his hands. “Let’s write a postcard to Vaclav,” he proposed. “You and me. Let’s do it together.”
The restaurant produced the required postcard, and, if I remember rightly, Milan dictated it and Véra wrote down what he said. Then we both signed. It struck me that Kundera would not have felt able to write the postcard by himself because of his troubled history with the new president. My signature allowed him to express his delight and make his peace.
I do not know if Havel ever answered him.